It’s Probably a Metaphor but…

The great evil rears it ugly head once more.

One of the few memories from high school that stands out to me is a substitute teacher struggling to teach twenty bored teenagers about William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheel Barrow.” He asked the class, “What does the color white represent?” Students would answer goodness, purity, innocence. By the end of the class, “The Red Wheel Barrow” had become an epic poem about the struggle between the good and innocent white chickens and the satanic red wheelbarrow. I may have actually sprained my eye muscles from rolling them so often.

Over a decade later, I now stand in front of a room full of college Freshman and am tasked with teaching them about poetry—well, about analyzing texts, I’m just lucky to have a little freedom with my curriculum and get to select those texts. Most of the students groan with dread when I tell them that for a portion of the class we’re going to read poems. The idea of not loving poetry, for me, is like not loving music, but I can’t blame anyone who doesn’t like music if all they know of it is “My Achy Breaky Heart” and “Hey Macarena” and had been forced to write 1000 words on their deeper philosophical meaning. Ideally, the best way to introduce students to poetry is to show them its breadth of styles and subjects and let them find what works for them. You don’t like the stilted forms and elitist attitudes of Victorian poetry, lets listen to spoken word instead. Eventually, I believe I could find a poem for everyone. Still I must teach analysis, which has the potential to reinforce the idea of a poem as a purely symbolic puzzle.

When I read “The Red Wheelbarrow” to my classes and ask, “What is happening in this poem?” students sigh, admit that they don’t get poetry, or roll their eyes. Once a student trying to shock and show his disdain said, “Someone is going to have to shovel chicken shit.”

“Yes!” I yelled, “You understand the poem!”

I’ve always found the literal meanings of poems just as important as any symbolic ones. A reader of Dorothy Parker’s “One Perfect Rose” does not need to interpret the titular flower as the representation of the chivalric view of love to enjoy the poem. Not that I want to discourage students from those deeper readings, I just want them to be aware that they don’t always have to try to find the “Truth” (note the capital “T”) in the poem to enjoy or understand it.

Sometimes trying to find a symbolic meaning for an image can hurt one’s reading of a poem. In one class, we read Adrienne Rich’s, “Living in Sin.” Many of the students discussed the lines, “That on the kitchen shelf among the saucers/ a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own—/ envoy from some village in the moldings.” Most of the students assumed that this line was an ambiguous metaphor for the mental state of the woman. When I inquired what the metaphor was, once again many confessed their own ignorance to poetry, some saying that they could never ever understand it. “What if we read that image as literal, as something that’s actually there? What’s in her cabinet?” I inquired. The class agreed—it was a bug of some sort and gross. Once they started looking at the poem for the literal, much of what seemed unsolvable riddles became interesting descriptions of everyday life. As one student wrote while reflecting on her work in the class, she now understood that “sometimes a ‘Red Wheelbarrow’ is just a red wheelbarrow.”

This approach to reading poetry has made my first reading of Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil interesting to say the least. I was even tempted to ignore my own lessons. First of all I neither speak French, and therefore must rely on translations, nor am I particularly familiar with the French tradition, so there is probably a lot of things that I’m missing. The particular poems that stood out to me were “The Dance of Death” and “The Martyr.”

Danse Macabre by Ernest Christophe

Even the title “The Dance of Death” suggests a symbolic reading, as it is a reference to the Medieval idea that no matter our position in life we all will succumb to death. A myriad of Medieval and Renaissance pictures show images of kings, popes, knights, and peasants dancing with a fearful skeleton. Since the poem is also dedicated to an artist, Ernest Christophe, who made a sculpture of death as a beautiful woman dressed for a ball, we can see that Baudelaire is placing himself firmly in that allegorical tradition. However, as a reader I can’t just jump straight to the meaning of the allegory—which is usually the most boring part—I need to imagine the scene as the poet presents it. I like the image of death as “Proud, as a living person, of her height,/ Her scarf and gloves and huge bouquet of roses,/ She shows such nonchalance and ease as might / A thin coquette excessive in poses.” Baudelaire does a good job rendering the appeal that death can have. However, the poem takes an uncomfortable turn in the lines, “Yet who’s not squeezed a skeleton with passion?/ Nor ravened with his kisses on the meat/ Of charnels.” This image is not one that anyone would want to dwell on—I suspect that the immediate reaction is to jump to the symbolic. With the symbolic, we can talk about the romanticism of death and the association between poets and suicide, all more pleasant than imaging the speaker with necrophilic intent. Yet, it’s that image that surprises and is remembered by the reader.

I was suspicious of my reading of the poem. At first, I assumed that it was simply being colored by the translation.  I had read Roy Campbell’s 1952 translation. William Aggler’s 1954 translation, “Yet who has not clasped a skeleton in his arms/ Who has not fed upon what belongs to the grave?” makes the speaker not as overtly necrophilic (though he’s still snuggling up to a corpse), but a bit more cannibalistic. Still this image is equally asdisturbing as the other. Lewis Piaget Shank’s 1931 translation, “Yet, who has not embraced a skeleton?/ Who on the thought of the tombs has never fed?” is by far the least interesting, but I suspect the translation most likely to make it into a high school textbook. By making the speaker snack on “thoughts of the tomb” instead of its actual contents, Shanks tells the reader that they should be focused on some deep emotional truth and not dwelling on those unsavory images. It reassures the reader that the images are just allegory, just symbolism. It takes away all the images’ shock and impact. Which of these three translation is the closest to the meaning of Baudelaire’s original lines is unclear to me, ignorant monolingual person that I am, though I suspect Campbell and Aggler are the ones closest to the mark. When I put “Pourtant, qui n’a serré dans ses bras un squelette,/ Et qui ne s’est nourri des choses du tombeau?” in Google translate I got “But who has hugged a skeleton,/ And who has fed things the tomb?” Obviously, Google translate missed something, but I do like this new befuddled speaker who seems to be saying “Why do you always have to be so dark, Baudelaire?”

I still distrusted my own reading of the text. A speaker alone in a tomb making out with a dead body: surely I was being obtuse, morbid and missing the point made by this well-respected and lauded poet. Yes, he was considered scandalous and had his work banned in his day, but he lived and wrote in the 19th century where everything was considered scandalous and lewd. Here he was saying something important about humans’ relationship to death, and I was imagining his speaker as a degenerate ghoul. Then I read “The Martyr.” In the first two stanzas, Baudelaire describes a sumptuous room, but in the third stanza, “A headless corpse, cascading in a flood/ Hot, living blood, that soaks, with crimson stain.” Later in the poem he writes “The vengeful man, whose lust you could not sate,/ (In spite of much love) nor quench his fire—/ Did he on your dead flesh then consummate/ His monstrous, last desire?” Let’s just say that after reading this poem, I felt more secure in my earlier reading of “The Dance of Death.”

Reading Baudelaire for the first time reminded me of how culturally (in the U.S. at least) we expect poetry to be about lofty ideals—since my first reaction to those grotesque images was to think that surely I was misreading the poems. Certainly, there may be cultural reference that I’m not getting, and there are deeper symbolic ways to read these poems. But their symbolic meaning doesn’t make these two poems any less about men (hopefully fictional) whose tastes lean towards the funerary and violent. In the race to find the “deeper” meaning of a poem, it is easy to ignore the story or the image that is presented on the surface. The surface of a lake may obscure what is underneath, but we lose something if we ignore what we see on the surface. Even if it’s only a reflection. Ultimately, I did not enjoy most of Baudelaire’s poems, but I appreciate how he used images to shock the reader. Yes, these images can be read as symbolic, emotional, abstract, but the reason they work so well is that they are grounded in the concrete. Sometimes it is necessary to let a cigar be a cigar, a red wheel barrow be a red wheel barrow, and a man with romantic inclination toward the dead be—well, you get idea.

“Hey Macarena!”

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“The Imposter” is Published

Ivan Bilibin's illustration for Vassilisa the Beautiful

Ivan Bilibin’s illustration for Vassilisa the Beautiful

I’ve mentioned in the past my love of Baba Yaga ever since I read Johanna Cole’s Bony Legs. Well, I love this character so much that I went and wrote a poem about her. The poem, “The Imposter,” has been published in the Ginger Bread House Literary Magazine. You can read it here.  You should also check out some of the other work that Gingerbread House published. I particularly enjoyed Annaliese Wagner’s “Go West, My Daughter” and Maggie Graber’s “Well.” 

The Return of March

Last year I participated in A Writer’s March, and I’m going to do so again this year.  What is Writer’s March you ask?  It is where you set an achievable goal in your writing and stick with it.  In a lot of ways it is like NaNoWriMo, but more relaxed.  Instead of focusing on generating pages, which  you can still do, the focus is on creating good writing habits that you can continue once the month is over.

Last year my goal was to write three hours a day and for the most part I met that goal.

This time around my goal is to write an hour a day.  On the surface it looks like my goal may have shrunk, but in reality my life has changed.  No longer do I have every morning to myself, and I’m working quite a bit more than I did last year.  Unfortunately, as my life has changed the writing habits that I had developed no longer work for me.  My focus this month is to develop new writing habits that I can expand on.

Go check out A Writer’s March here, sign up and set yourself some goals!

Time to Brag About Myself and My Friends

I’m excited to announce that I got two more poems published in the sixth issue of the wonderful magazine The Mas Tequila Review. You can find a copy on amazon.  The two poems are “Rescued from Carmilla,” a reinterpretation of Sheridan Le Fanu‘s famous vampire tale, and “Three Texts: a Girl and a Wolf” an exploration of the difference between the Grimm’s “Little Red Cap,” Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Story of the Grandmother.”

Illustration by D. H. Friston to Carmilla

I’m excited to be published alongside other poets such as Linda Hogan,  Pam Uschuk, Tony Mares, Merimée Moffitt, Julie SuZaNNe BröKKeN,  Rich Boucher, and Jennifer Givhan.

I wanted to highlight my friend Casandra Lopez who is also included in this issue.  She is the co-editor, along with another friend Tanaya Winder, of the new online magazine AS/US: A Space for Women of the World.  Particularly I want to to share their V-day issue featuring great poetry, fiction, essay, and even dancing dealing with the issues of violence against women.  You should follow this link and check out their magazine.  Or you could always buy their fist issue as as well.

The Unexpected Voice

I just finished reading John Dies at the End by David Wong. The book is creepy, surreal, psychedelic, manic, absurd, sarcastic and crassly funny—all in all a good read if you don’t mind an occasional (or frequent) dick joke or a major plot point revolving around dog poop.

The cover to both my copy of the book and the film adaptation.

John Dies at the End reminded me of several books I especially loved during my late teens and early twenties: The Invisibles (a graphic novel series about a group of guerrilla fighters battling an evil government conspiracy involving magical/ inter-dimensional beings), Tank Girl (a graphic novel series about a girl with a tank who drinks too much, kills things, and shags kangaroos), Transmetropolitan (a graphic novel series about a drug fueled, violently insane, manic reporter and his two filthy assistants who topples a ruthless and corrupt president in the distant future), Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (a graphic novel about a homicidal maniac), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (not a graphic novel…and I shouldn’t have explain it to you). My taste ran to self-destructive manic characters who either saw that the conventions of polite society were B.S. or saw that those conventions masked evil parasites (both metaphorical and literal in their respective universes). My taste made a certain amount of sense for an angst ridden and depressed young adult.

During that time I tried to write countless stories with similarly insane weird protagonists: a fraudulent medium who reads fortunes from the crumbs of potato chip bags and is always right, or a girl who after being turned into a hungry monster is pissed off that she been turned back into a human and is still hungry. Fun ideas maybe, but I never could get the stories to work. All I knew was I wanted to write in a mind-bending and profanity laden voice similar to those authors I loved. But with each attempt that I made, I only ended up writing bad copy laden with cliché. Maybe it was because I didn’t have the attention span required of those longer works, or maybe I didn’t do enough drugs.

But because I had a short attention span, I was writing poems the whole time. As I struggled with a story, I would get an idea for a poem and in an hour I could have the first draft down, and return to that frustrating story.  At the time I treated the poems like I treated journal entries—an expression of current emotion—that I was slightly more likely to share with my friends. I never thought it would develop into anything—though to be fair at that time in my life I assumed I’d be dead in the gutter by age of 30 and only went to college out of spite. I took a fiction class and wrote horrible stories involving sarcastic vampires then I took a poetry class and wrote horrible poems with some good lines. By the time I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Creative Writing, I’d given myself over completely to poetry. After all my poetry improved by leaps and bounds, while my fiction was still a sad weak little thing. It was only in the last year of graduate school that I dared to start submitting my fiction, which by then had radically changed.

I think my focus on poetry is what changed my voice. Oh, I could still be creepy, sarcastic, surreal and even a little mad at times, but the focus shifted. I became interested in motivation, in images, in sound. I even wrote poems that were quiet and took their time. I still have a lot of anger in my work, but it is calmer, more focused, more self-aware, not the self-destructive manic energy I once so admired. And of course, this voice that emerged in my poems infected my fiction.

As I read John Dies at the End I couldn’t help but think, this is the type of book I once wanted to write. The moment almost tasted like failure—a goal I did not reach—but I’m still writing.  I’ve published work, and I and currently submitting my manuscript to publishers (fingers crossed). I simply did not meet my goals in the way I thought I would when I was 19 and 20 years old. So my writing now owes more to Angela Carter, Italo Calvino, and Ai than it does to Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, and Jhonen Vasquez, that does not mean failure.

In the end it just turns out that I had different things to say, but isn’t that the nature of writing. You sit down with a blank page and head full of ideas, and by the time you finish covering the page with words you have something completely different from what was in your head. I may not write in the voice that I’d once wanted to, there are already writers doing that far better than I could, but I write in voice that is my own.

What is the Etiquette?

This morning I read an article from The Missouri Review’s blog called “Three Ways to Improve the Editor-Writer Relationship.” The advice was helpful particularly the first piece: email writers and editors when their work moves you.  I think letting people know that “hey this was great” is a wonderful way to build community and encourage writers (this may even be a News Years resolution for me). I’m not going to follow all the advice though—in particular number three, I just don’t see myself starting a magazine anytime soon. But the lack of relationships between editors and writers is something that I’ve been very much aware of recently.

Long ago, I learned that just because your work was rejected by a magazine that doesn’t mean you should stop submitting to them. Some of my favorite magazines have rejected me many times, and I hope they understand that the reason I keep submitting is because I love them.

However, I’ve recently realized that I don’t submit to magazine that have accepted my work. When I made this realization, I thought “That’s silly. Those places have already shown that they liked my work, I should submit again.” But I didn’t.

When writing the cover letters to these magazines, I suddenly became self-conscious of my formal tone—was I being insulting by not being more casual since they already accepted my work, or would I be acting entitled by assuming the previous publication put us on informal terms. Some may think this is silly, but I find conversation through technology particularly stressful. I hate making phone calls because I can’t see the other person’s a body language, and every email I write I imagine how the person receiving it reads it and must think I was being sarcastic. All this is with people I know.  Now throw in the fact that when I’m contacting an editor, I’m basically communicating with a stranger, who I want to publish me and who knows that I want them to publish me, and I become frozen.  It all comes down to the fear that they will dislike me, because I failed at some internet etiquette.  Obviously, I’m over thinking this situation.  I should just submit.

As you all obviously know, technology is changing how people connect and friendships run, and I can’t help but feel it is for the better.  But Lord, I’m bad at this internet thing.  I get so worried that I’ll stick my foot in my mouth, I often remain silent.

The Tyranny of Inspiration

This doesn’t happen to me anymore.  But through my latter years of high school and my first few years of college, the one time I was guaranteed to be inspired was when I was driving.  I’d switch lanes and suddenly a line pop into my head.  With one hand, I’d pull a pen from my purse, and whenever I stopped at a red light I scribbled, as quickly as I could, on my arm, praying that the light would not change.  At those moments, I seemed to catch all the green lights.  When I arrived home, I transcribed the words scrawled across my skin, desperate to find that spark I felt when I was getting off the freeway.  What I was able to save seemed to die on the page, in that rush to catch the muse’s words I missed something and that magic was lost.

As of late, I’ve been hearing and reading a lot about how poets must allow the poem find its own way, to remove their ego from the process.  If they start out with an idea of what the poem should be, they will suffocate it by trying to make it fit that mold.  I think that this is true—poems are about discovering the unknown.  However, I often felt that my own process is antithetical to this concept; I start with ideas.  Well, maybe I should say I start with questions that I try to answer.  What if Bluebeard had a wife who hadn’t looked in the bloody chamber?  How did Pygmalion’s statue feel about her transformation?  What is in the bathtub buried in my neighbor’s backyard?  Why did our friendship end?  This process still has room for discovery, yet it seems so constricting when compared to the process of other poets.  After all, from the onset of the poem I imagine that I will find an answer.

I suspect that I don’t really understand the process of the other poets.  One thing that I don’t lack is sense of insecurity. So when someone responds to my statement that “I revise the hell out of my poems” with the fact that they tend to do minimal revisions, I don’t take the take the statement as it was meant—a simple observation in the differences in our process—but as a reprimand.  In the end, I can’t escape the feeling that my work is contrived, lacks inspiration, and that I’m strangling it with revision (apparently, I’m my own worse critic).

Yet, when I’m writing I’m often surprised by what shows up on the page.  In one poem where I’m deal with the fairy tale, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” I found it interesting that the bear the heroine married was considered monstrous, but that his human form that visited each night was welcomed without fear (on the part of the heroine).  I started writing with the question “What if the human half is the real monster?”  A few drafts in, I wrote the lines, “Mother should’ve told me/to light a lamp,/ warned me/ that it was the devil/ who visited each night.”  The poem had veered away from the fairy tale.  In subsequent revisions the girl never left home, and I realized that the poem was about incest.  Revision had led me into territory I had not planned to enter that I would probably have never choose to write about.  Like I said, writing is about discovery.

Perhaps the reason that I so doubt my writing process is because it seems to lack that quality of inspiration.  Inspiration—I imagine is when you suddenly feel electrified words burst forth, and they seem to crystallize that very moment.   When I write, I sit down and trudge.  I try to get an idea on the page.  It is usually awful, so I come back the next day and interrogate the thing—I revise.  Sometimes it leads me nowhere—sometimes I write what I (presumptuously) call a poem.  After a good day of writing, I have the same feeling I get after a day of moving or cooking or cleaning.  I’m tired, but I’ve accomplished something.  I don’t feel the elation, the energy of inspiration.

When I go through my old notebooks and look at the car poems—I see ideas that never should have made it to the page.  In that moment of what seemed to be inspiration—when I drove dangerously for what I hoped to be a poem—I’d just gotten an idea, an idea of what I wanted a poem to be.  This so-called inspiration did not allow me to examine each word, to question my assumptions, to let the poem breath and grow with each new draft.  After all, who was I to doubt the muse?  At the time of writing, those words seemed to lack ego, to appear out of the ether.

Looking back, I wonder why I mistook those moments for inspiration, why when I write now I feel that my process is lacking though the writing is leaps and bounds better.  Maybe, it was because those moments of elation were so similar to those moments of coming across a great line or paragraph when reading.  Maybe I subconsciously thought that writing must feel like reading that it should simply flow and that there are moments of epiphany.  But writing is nothing like reading, the same way baking is nothing like eating a slice of cake.  It seems so obvious, but it is hard to resist the elation, to resist what seems to be inspiration.

Poetry by Alphonse Mucha

Poetry by Alphonse Mucha